Code Does Not Forgive

Stepping down from being a manager of developers to the role of a developer, I left a world of broader ideas with fuzzy edges and entered a world of sharply defined rules. Code is not a concept, it commits in real-time to whatever it’s told to do. When it doesn’t work, it tells you. When it does, there is no fanfare. It just does the job.

Code has no context. It does not “get” that it’s doing something new, or something with broad implications. It does not ask why. Code goes ahead and executes. The only code that asks if you are sure is a code that is written to ask if you are sure. Something as cheesy as "onSubmit="javascript:alert('Are You Sure?');" usually does the trick. Otherwise, code assumes that what you’ve told it to do it will do with no take-backs.

I’ve been watching this new trashy and silly, but entertaining, TV show mostly because it stars an old friend of mine. It’s called “Almost Human.” It’s a near-future world in which police now recruit robots as partners to team up with humans. There are two models. The current models, the MX-43, are like code. They are programmed for the task of fighting crime, and do not ask why. They ask permission only if protocol demands. Otherwise, they follow the letter of the law, which can have uneven results. The law, as we know, also has a spirit.

Enter the older model, the “DRN,” affectionately called “Dorian.” These were programmed with an algorithm called “synthetic soul.” Synthetic soul presumably contains all the “if/then” possibilities for human emotions. It was found that the Dorian’s had too much feeling to do the job, too many emotions, so were scuttled in favor of the newer models that strictly follow protocol. (There are no doubt myriad feminist treatises that could be derived from this conceit, but I digress.)

Due to a shortage of newer units , one of the Dorians, which had been mothballed, gets recommissioned as the partner of a cop suffering from PTSD. It is arguable which of the two is the protagonist, and which is the one with better judgment. Dorian is far more handsome and compassionate than his partner (and, I must say, a better actor by a long shot). The very fact of entering into his character as a subject, rather than a very shiny and amazing object, is a testament to the power of the code.

But at its core, it’s code, and code goes where we tell it to go, with algorithms that merely potentiate actions like infinite fractals emanating from a core pattern of our making. Whether we like it or not, however fancy the output is, it’s still code.

I had an experience this week that reminded me of this cold world of code that I now occupy. Nothing so glamorous as Dorian having an anxiety attack in a public square due to a depleting battery, but something that reminded me that I’m not in the Kansas of “big ideas” anymore.

Add to it that I now work at a school of medicine (The MX-43) where I spent over a decade at a college of liberal arts and sciences (Dorian). Schools of medicine are another culture altogether. A highly mobile faculty that is tasked with teaching students and conducting research, all while caring for patients in a large medical setting. These are people who at any point in time have so much on their plates it’s hard to comprehend. Add to it that, on top of FERPA regulations, IT systems have to live within the strict confines of HIPAA regulations. Notions of abuse of email, what information can go where and who has access to it, as well as the crossover between the academic and patient care mission, can lead to unbelievably complex technology scenarios.

As a result, what comes in an email has large implications here. Folks have been trained and warned about use and abuse of email, and faculty don’t want to have to parse what’s good email from what’s malicious. The stakes are kinda high.

So, when a developer (let’s say, for argument’s sake, it is I), is implementing a new mailing list API (“It works! I’m thrilled!”), and neglects to change default code of "$optin = true;" to "$optin = false;,” results are instantaneous and stressful: 3,900 unwanted emails go out to the population of highly stressed and highly trained school of medicine faculty and staff.

In the world of big ideas, the difference between true and false can be argued for hours, depending on your discipline. The arts and humanities play with true and false along on its palette of a million social constructs begging for deconstruction. Dorian would have tenure.

But here, I feel that I need to learn how to think like an MX-43. More native developers do this as if in their DNA, but I’m learning in my old age to carve out a synthetic anti-soul so as to enter a world of thought where things act as they are designed and there are no unintended consequences that are not programmed into it to appear unintended.

This type of thinking so does not come naturally to me. I expect my excitement about the code to matter to the code. I expect it to be my friend, to know what I meant.

But, the code does not care. It does what it’s told. And the code does not forgive.

PETA and the Trouble with Social Media Campaigns

In case you haven’t seen, PETA shot itself in the foot this week with a social media campaign aligning Martin Luther King, Jr. with the cause of animal rights:
Peta

It included, among others, playing the “Hitler” card with this gem:

pig

Originally posted at peta.org.

 

Needless to say, the backlash has been fierce. Likening the cause of basic human and civil rights for humans with the cause of animal rights by co-opting a loved and murdered leader can make people a little angry. Apologists will defend the intention of the campaign but, unfortunately, the horse is out of the barn, and good intentions have ambled down that road they paved to their inevitable destination.

It’s certain that no one meant any harm here, but social media campaigns have a way of backfiring. It’s one of the reasons why I would like a discussion of how social media is used to promote the activities of institutions of higher education.

I have long been a proponent of social media that comprises the aggregation of academic activity within the institution in service to engaging in discussion with those outside the ivy walls. Such use of social media, if enabled and promoted by those who manage the institution’s reputation, can lead to deeper discussions and further the image of an institution as a place of meaningful dialogue that is sorely needed in our society. I had a unique opportunity at the University of Mary Washington to further this since so much of their academic activity is exposed to the world via UMW Blogs and Domain of One’s Own.

But most other institutions are not so public with their academic dialogue. The majority of those in my profession adhere to the notion that we need to craft social media campaigns, using Twitter and Facebook as essentially streams for sound bytes and nice photos. Authenticated and locked down LMS’s and MOOCs and fears of intellectual capital imbroglios leave other institutions, by comparison, with fewer publicly-available resources for engaging in dialogue. 

What happened with PETA is an illustration of how, when social media, which began as a way of individual voices being networked (one-to-many) can become strained when the individual voice is not an individual, but an institution (or its brand). When I speak as myself, I don’t drag the institution down with me. I become one of many voices, and the aggregate activity of those in my institution can be judged writ large, not based on one person’s reaction or opinion. When an institution uses social media in this way, it can come across as glib and thoughtless. Or, in the case of higher education, too safe and artificial.

Higher education, if done right, should stimulate new thinking, provoke reaction, generate conversation, lift the human spirit. It’s a messy affair, which is why social media can be such a great place for it. Social media, in its very architecture, is messy, prone to chaotic activity, lacking in any real rigor or structure. When well-meaning campaigns enter into the fray, they can feel like your parents just walked into the room and asked a dumb question trying to get with the kids lingo. What may have seemed like a great idea in some ad copy becomes jarring, and subject to a different kind of interpretation. You become “the man,” and as such, subject to all the derision and distrust that comes with that territory.

Context is everything. If you are using social media as an institution to provoke emotions, as you would a “controversial” ad campaign, or self-promote, as higher education has a tendency to do, don’t be surprised if social media comes back to bite you with what it does best: cry “bullshit” in a very public and collective way.

Higher education began as dialogue (you know, the whole Socrates thing). I worry that we have become, instead, institutions that market our meaning to people, instead of engaging in dialogue that gives meaning. In so doing, our watered-down and overly-considered public presence has lost the essence of what made us meaningful to begin with. If we appear irrelevant to people enough to be discussing our own demise, that one is on us.

Reshaping Higher Education Digital Communications for the Mobile Age, Part 2: Tactics Aren’t Strategy

The issue of digital communications strategy is a tough one in higher education. Most products and services geared towards web development, search engine optimization, conversions and the like are geared towards commerce. That is, a successful web effort results in yielding greater market reach and more sales.

Higher education is not so simple. Our web sites and digital marketing efforts support so very many aspects of university life that an overarching strategy is difficult to come by. Is it athletics? Alumni? Admissions? If so, is it graduate admissions? Undergraduate? Oh, and don’t forget parents. Is it Student Affairs? Emergency communications?

The fact is that a simple, one-dimensional strategy is insufficient for an online environment that is not simply a lead generator and sales portal, but a living environment that people inhabit day to day. Thinking through the ways people use the web in a MOBILE environment is even more complex because mobile is about immediate/personal/transactional vs. browsing/reading.

So, where to begin?

We usually begin in the middle. We do this as a matter of shorthand because the issue is so very large that we have to start somewhere, and that somewhere is usually determined by the skillset and experience of the person who is in charge of the environment. If you are a developer, it will be choice of a CMS. If you are a marketing or communications person, it may be the choice of a web consultant or the hiring of a social media director or holding focus groups. If you are a designer, it will start with wireframes and redesign discussions. We generally begin within our comfort zones.

Strategy stretches beyond our comfort zones to more fundamental questions. It asks not “how” so much as “why.” It’s the why that takes you into new places that you may not have considered, helping you to prioritize what you are doing and why. Surely, all of the approaches above are valid answers to the “how,” and all yield bounded results (a new website) that will comprise arguable improvements to current environments. But changes made from these types of tactics, vs. larger strategic goals, will inevitably turn old within 18 months or so and require not iterative improvement, but complete overhaul because the “how” as a driver changes so rapidly.

I’ve lived this more than once with more than one complete University overhaul of a web environment. In 2011, we launched a new website for the University of Mary Washington that is still live today. Without a doubt, the design is a vast improvement over what was there before (which I designed in 2006). But what spurred it on was a mandate from the top that we have a website redesign. It was literally written into the strategic plan. Still, nowhere did it state why this was a priority over, say, more resources for online learning and the like.

So, what we did was, very efficiently and effectively re-designed the website to look better and more current, and then the print communications folks created materials that worked in harmony with it. But, the overall architecture of the site was not questioned. Once it launched, the age of mobile and responsiveness arrived and, from a technical perspective, it fell behind the curve again. And because the mandate was to re-tool nearly 10,000 web pages in a confined period of time, not a lot of time was devoted to re-thinking the content. We migrated old static content to a new container, and the project was done.

What a lost opportunity in retrospect. Because the driver was the a priori tactic of “redesign the website” we missed the larger conversation about “rethink communications priorities” and then build a digital plan into that.

The sisyphean nature of these large, cyclical website redesign projects takes too many resources to not want to not simply migrate content and unify design than to look, very critically, at what all of these online environments do, whom they benefit, and how those benefits support strategic goals for the institution.

The desire for a new redesign can be driven by internal audiences who simply grow tired of the old design. That’s understandable, but do you really want to spend a lot of money so people who are tired of looking at something can feel momentary delight in something new? If you are faced with an aging web presence, here is a better way to go about it:

  • Embrace iteration: Think less about wholesale, comprehensive redesigns and more about small wins that will provide you with some lessons in what works, and allow you to build towards a goal incrementally and iteratively. In my current position, wanting to improve knowledge about and within the Department of Medicine amounted to discontinuing a PDF-formatted emailed newsletter to become a public blog that can be distributed widely via html email and accessed 24/7 outside of our email systems. Over 522 articles have been published in this blog over the past year, and the whole world can read up on the achievements of the faculty in our largest department. We are now poised to create others throughout the institution, including new tie-ins to MailChimp and methods to apply authentication on a post-by-post basis for more private content.
  • Read your strategic plan: If your institution is focusing on certain goals (admissions numbers, athletic recruitment, growing a graduate program, etc.) approach your initial iterative change by selecting the most critical of these, and figure out a strategy to address it.
  • Learn from your own work: Solve a problem, document the lessons learned, and see where the value came from. Then improve, repeat, and, in service to possible larger implementations, figure out how/when to scale your solution. In our case, quick wins we have gotten in our experimental WordPress environment have showed us where the gaps are in what our current web environment offers.
  • Wait on the consultants: Until you’ve done a bit of your own experimentation, and understand better what your resources are, you should not call in a consultant. Call in a consultant to help you with the heavy lifting once you know what you need to do based on lessons learned. If you don’t, you will have a beautiful product that grew out of the mind of someone who will not have to support it and live with it once the contract is up. I’ve seen that not work out well more than once. It’s not a print brochure, it’s a living thing, and the consultant does not have to live with it. You do.

In short, don’t jump into a redesign because internal constituents are tired of the aging website. Rather, be with the people in your institution in dialogue and learn from them what would better help them do their jobs, and what would better help support strategic goals. Then, and only then, should you begin determining tactics like mobile responsiveness, web vs. native apps, CMS selection, new media, social media, etc. All good topics, but not a starting point in and of themselves and NOT the essence of a digital communications strategy.

Reshaping Higher Education Digital Communications for the Mobile Age, Part 1

In my last post, I posited that web presentation/aggregation, vs. web publishing systems, are where we should be focusing our energies in higher education digital communications. However, I didn’t really lay out how I think this can happen, and certainly, dismissing the CMS entirely is a hard thing to imagine given how people have been taught to envision, shape, and experience, the web presence of higher education institutions, from the inside, and from the outside.

I’d like to flesh out this high-fallutin’ notion of APIs and aggregation vs. “content” worship and publishing. For my own clarity of mind, I’ll need to lay out a possible process for how to get there from here. In contrast to 10 years ago, when content management systems began to enable proliferation of content within a “web page” paradigm, we now have an embarrassment of web pages, with little to organize them save the good ol’ college try at information architecture embedded within seemingly intransigent legacy reporting structures that truly, and sadly, continue to shape higher ed web architecture.

Faced with this scenario of too much content, and too little meaning, clogging up the navigational works, how do higher education digital communications professionals reshape the online landscape to respond to the more personal/immediate/mobile web that our audiences now inhabit?

Last year, I did a five-part piece on Marketing and Higher Education. I’d like to start 2014 with a similar series of installments on how to wrench us out of these desktop-bound website monstrosities we’ve built and move us into the next big thing that higher ed sites need to inhabit: the web as a networked community. Over the next couple of weeks, I will try to expand upon the following points:

  1. Tactics Aren’t Strategy: If I hear one more person talk about strategic web development, I’m going to scream. By the time we have arrived at “we need to recreate our website” you’ve moved into tactics. How do we rewind the conversation to reframe exactly what we are doing in the digital space vs. building more websites as a fait accompli?
  2. Community is Key: We have enabled the creation of content, but still do so assuming a one-way street: publishing to the reader. The mobile world thrives on connection and community. What relevance have our reams of the endlessly scrolled, technology-enabled contentfest we call websites when they are carried in someone’s pocket? At some point, you have to examine the wreckage of content bloat and figure out which content stays and in what form. 
  3. Be a Friend: Internal stakeholders have pride of ownership in legacy content and in web presence. You cannot come in guns blazing saying “yes” and “no” to people and not be part of the culture of the place you inhabit. The process to create online community must be done within a community space. Don’t be the big “webmaster” (ugh!) in the sky. Be a resident, not a service provider.
  4. Follow the Data: CMS-bound content sitting there in static-land are causing folks to work too hard to maintain content while dragging down SEO. There are myriad data sources available on our campuses and off that we can access in service to this notion of publish less/aggregate more. Auditing your current CMS-published content will reveal much which is truly directory information, announcements, calendar information, maps, etc. There is also untapped activity on social media sites. How do we harness the power of the information that is out there so we can free our web administrators to publish only what is needed, in the correct places and ways, when it does not exist elsewhere?

Looking forward to expanding on the above ideas as I move into a new year where I’ll be grappling with all of the above. Meanwhile, I wish you a happy new year with this piece of my past: Guy Lombardo on New Year’s Eve, 1977. I watched the original broadcast, as I had every year with my folks on New Year’s Eve. Guy Lombardo, “Sweetest music this side of heaven.”

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Kill the CMS! We are the World!

Everything I needed to know about web development I learned in a session of an undergraduate class in International Relations. The professor said (I paraphrase): “The flaw of U.S. foreign policy is that it always addresses the previous problem.” Foreign policy plays catch up with the disasters of the past. So we have things like the Marshall Plan after WWII, which sought to avoid what happened to a bankrupted Germany after WWI, and the Patriot Act, which seeks to prevent 9/11 after it happened. Meanwhile, things move on and it becomes like a global game of whack-a-mole.

So it is with web development. As an in-the-trenches web developer now, I have to keep my eye on the ball of making code within a paradigm that I am given: The implementation of a content management system (in my case, WordPress). Trouble is, as I happily code along, things are moving fast and furious on the web and the entire notion of the CMS as we know it is, in my opinion, rapidly becoming obsolete.

To deconstruct, let’s talk about what a CMS is: A CMS is a system that allows a group of unrelated people within an institution to create and publish content to the web, usually with the intention of standardizing the web look and feel among them, and to a certain extent standardizing navigational schemes, so as to present a unified appearance of a single interface published by a single entity. Its importance in higher education was to the marketing folks who wanted to present a single brand within a culture that had a history of distributed expression and, by extension, web publishing.

In the early 2000s, the CMS solved the then-problem of disjointed-looking websites that arose from ad-hoc html publishing within companies and institutions. They came along to control the chaos that was the web at that point. The central issue was that when you went from one university department site to the next, the change in design was up to the whim of the person managing that site. The user experience was dreadful as there were frequent dead ends and the constant need to use the “back” button to navigate out of a website back to the institution’s site.

We still use the CMS to solve that 1990s problem of a disjointed-looking institutional website. But the web has moved on, and the look/feel issue of a desktop site is becoming less and less important within a mobile framework. So web developers talk about “mobile first” development as though that is going to solve things. What this means is that, within that CMS that is still the accepted paradigm, we develop our mobile look and feel first, and then build out to the desktop, privileging the mobile theme as primary.

This approach solves a logistical issue of how to stuff the 10 pound bag of full-screen web s$%t into the 1 pound bag that is the tiny mobile screen. But, by not changing the paradigm of how the content is PUBLISHED within the CMS, only how it is PRESENTED, we are not fundamentally moving the conversation along any further. So the bag of content continues to grow, and people are asked to read meaningless “About Us” and “Our Mission” pages, and view mindless responsive slideshows on their mobile phones.

Mobile is about fast access to information you need and transactions you need to make on the spot. Institutional content management for mobile does not need to empower the many to CREATE but rather empower the system to CURATE content that is now proliferating from many sources.

People all over the web are using Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and similar platforms to publish content. It begs the question as to why universities spend so much money these days on tools to enable publishing when the tools are already out there. To add insult to injury, when institutional departments publish to their CMS-driven websites, they frequently re-publish the same content to Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter and the like. We even hire people to determine which content gets to be double-published to these platforms — we call them social media managers and now, apparently, every department needs one.

The rise of the social media manager in addition to a webmaster is a sign that things have gotten way out of hand, don’t you think?

I’ve written frequently in this space about my quest to avoid becoming an unneeded administrative expense that takes away from teaching and learning dollars. To that end, I cannot help but wonder how to get webmaster types to move the question along from enabling in-house publishing and re-publishing content to scrapping the CMS altogether and simply curating the content that our departments are already publishing to social media sites, re-aggregating that to a lean, mean mobile-first institutional site. Marketing copy and design can be the fluffy cherry-on-top of aggregated content for the old desktop crowd (read: the administration and high school guidance counselors), but the rest of the world (that is, the prospective student who’s on her/his phone) will simply get lean, mean, up-to-date experiences and, if administrative systems ever catch up, transactions like course registration and admissions applications.

This focuses web development resources on aggregation tools including APIs, and lets web developers continually keep ahead of the curve on where the content is coming from, going to, and how to manage it. It lets webmasters become not publishing-enablers, but content masters and who weave pieces of globally-published content into a whole that defines to the world what the institution means. It frees up TONS of money now used to manage large content publishing platforms.

I urge anyone who has NOT visited this web page to visit it. It’s created by a person called Kin Lane and he is a self-appointed API Evangelist. Kin is a person who inspires just about anyone to see the need to scrap content publishing as we know it and get in the game of content aggregation: http://apievangelist.com

Kill the CMS! We are the World people! Let’s show ‘em how it’s done! (Cyndi Lauper NAILED THIS THING!).

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“More than just a website”

These are the words that President Obama has used in his talking points regarding the multiple technical problems of the new healthcare.gov website.

I feel for the team on that project, and this is not an indictment of them, or of the President, or of the ACA. Rather, I am stunned to see that the relationship between the public and the internet has so changed in the past 10 years that we actually conflate a website with the product it delivers. I see this as a messily promising change in how the public regards technology.

As a web developer, this strikes at the heart of a lot of what I do day to day. Where once we were called on to be “web designers,” now higher education web developers are being asked to develop deeper functionality of the type that used to be managed within closed mainframe systems: interactive forms, workflow, asynchronous and synchronous notifications, document management, etc.

Where I used to tell folks “that is not a public web issue, that’s an application issue,” now I seriously respond with tools that can hopefully meet business needs in a public web framework. Where the line between online websites and online apps used to be drawn at this deeper kind of functionality, now I prefer to draw it at the line of institutional data.

That is, if an app requires the use of FERPA- and/or HIPAA-protected data, it belongs with the folks who manage those secure systems. However, if an app need only provide functionality outside of a secure data framework, today’s higher ed web developers have a lot more on their plate than we did a decade ago, producing “brochureware” that mimicked our institutions print communications pieces.

As a result, institutions (including the federal government, it would seem) need to acknowledge that web hosting is no longer a static service, and that data is not worth anything if it can’t be accessed and manipulated easily within a web framework. No doubt the healthcare.gov backend systems were not up to the task of rapid outward-facing web deployment, which in older systems was always an afterthought.

If nothing else, this current debacle makes the issue of open data and data security within a web framework front and center in the technology conversation. I’m anxious to see what happens with our govermnent-vendor-delivered products as a result of this debacle. I am also anxious to see if, in the aggregate, the need to be more fluid with all kinds of data will push the discussion of webservices from its current stalled and overly-specialized state (IMHO) deeper into tools like WordPress so that end-users can take advantage of this website-as-app culture that has come upon us. WordPress uses JSON, but there are not many good tools for end-users to understand and deploy this open data framework as of yet — only the most seasoned developers can unlock them.

All in good time. For now, the notion that the public can view a website AS the product (and not merely a representation OF the product) is good news all around (unless you have to use the healthcare.gov website, I suppose!).

Where is Our Route 66?

Here’s the thing with web developers that is so completely infuriating: They are web developers. Full disclosure: My job title is “Web Developer.”

Let me explain by metaphor, if I may. For the purposes of our metaphor, let’s make the web developer a manufacturer of automobiles. They are really, really good at it, in fact, the best in the world. Our metaphorical web-developer-as-automobile-manufacturer stays on top of innovations in the industry, and churns out vehicles each year that are indestructible, safe, efficient, cost-effective, beautiful and profitable.

Designing great automobiles is no small feat, and there can be heated discussion regarding engineering, manufacturing, design, marketing and business. They’ve successfully solved these problems and answered these questions. They win all the debates. You really can’t argue with them on their stuff. They are on their turf, and they know what’s best.

The automobile manufacturing metaphor breaks down at some point because this is a vertical industry. That is, it’s an industry that is informed by economic, political, and industrial context, but ultimately exists to solve its own problems: build and sell cars.

Web development is different in that it is two-fold: It is a beautiful piece of technology (the vertical), but it is part of a broader conversation within a more horizontal context of infinite messages, industries, and relationships. My frustration in this day and age is being in the trenches with developers who still think we are just designing automobiles instead of assisting clients with their entry into a social context that is like a massive virtual, multidirectional transportation system of ideas.

Higher Education is better than it once was at staffing to have web developers around to build the beautiful automobiles. It has fallen far short on staffing to orchestrate that larger conversation about meaning, relationships, community, and society (you know, the whole “higher education” thing). On that, we scrimp. We add “digital” or “social media” to the job description of marketing folks, we add “strategic” to the job description of our developers and we hope that, somehow, a functioning, robust organism will arise from the ill-designed confluence of automobile engineers, designers, and marketing folks.

The lack of vision, mediation and guidance in the larger conversation about how to live on the web wastes institutional resources in a large, large way. The trouble is that the folks in charge of our institutions are already trying to oversee so very much that it’s something that cannot be viewed easily from the perch of our Boards or Executive Committees. It is something that I have viewed living the bowels of middle-management for as long as I have (yes, you can take the metaphor anywhere you’d like).

The result is something like this: A client (department head, chair, faculty member) wants a web site and they want it to do this, this, this, and this.

The web developer KNOWS how to make it do this, this, this, and this — and, bonus — this and this, too, because, let’s not forget, they are the best in the world. The copy writers and designer-types fill it in with stuff. The site is amazing and beautiful and secure and robust and spiffy and WOW.

The website gets built and there is a launch. The client is happy. The administration sees another website going up, sees another happy faculty member, is grateful that stuff is getting done and one less faculty member is complaining about one less thing. The web developer gets a bonus, or a letter in their HR file about their awesomeness.

What, pray tell, is the incentive within that framework to question what is defined as success? I mean, the site was specified and built to the best of industry standards. Only an idiot would question that this was a job well done.

Here is the trouble I have with that, and by extension, with my profession as practiced: we are tasked with automobile manufacturing when there are no people who are transportation experts. We are building websites that through our CMSs come off like fabulous showrooms and crowded parking lots of beautiful luxury vehicles.

In the early days of automobiles, roads were built by auto manufacturers and railroad companies. They were privately owned and became a regulatory nightmare to oversee. Route 66 was a revolution — someone said we need a way for folks to connect with this entire country via a shared mechanism. The social community that was built along Route 66 was a phenomenon in its heyday. It was the 20th century’s answer to the pioneers. Route 66 made every American an explorer, and the automobile, although exquisite in its own right, finally had MEANING.

We have staffed higher ed to have “scalable infrastrucutures” and “content management systems” but there is no one overseeing the development of our Route 66: The connection between and among these things to create meaningful web environments. We are building, building, building beautiful cars on outstanding company-owned roads known as scalable infrastructures. Until meaning comes along in the form of a larger conversation, vision, and oversight, our institutional websites, with our ”throw-me-a-social-media-bone” bookmarks are more like meandering, metastasizing monoliths with nowhere to go.

Time to Fight the Digital Nanny State

Who doesn’t really get a guilty pleasure shopping at a big box store? Be it Target, Wal-Mart, Home Depot — there is something satisfying on a “don’t make me work too hard” level about browsing in these places. The downtown street of my childhood has been scaled down, neatly organized, and climate controlled. I no longer have to think about when the office supply store closes, making it to the bakery before they run out of jelly donuts, how long it will take the appliance store to get my toaster oven delivered. It’s all just there and I put it in the cart.

So much of my experience in my now suburban lifestyle seems geared towards a kind of passivity which appeals to those of us who have jobs and kids and so little time. Our former downtown main street experiences have been condensed into a single, well-organized shopping trip. The result is that we feel we have greater control over our time and budgets. So much at our fingertips, and cheap, and quick.

We then login to the Facebook, and the world of human connection has similarly been laid out by a set of skilled UI engineers. It’s so easy to use: photos, stories, videos, conversation. All in a digital space that is so usable even my 72-year old brother figured it out.

When I first got into the online game in the mid-90s, the web was more like the downtown main street experience. It was chaos. It was ugly — lots of gray backgrounds and Times New Roman. Finding things reliably wasn’t possible. I still went to the phonebook if I needed to actually find anything useful. The Web was more a place of curiosity, frustration, occasional delight, experimentation, horror, and silliness. Through an online tutorial on Earthlink (my ISP — I couldn’t get with AOL — even then I suspected it was uncool), I learned how to write rudimentary HTML and made a one-page website for my comedy band, “Combo Schmombo.” The experience of writing crude code, then viewing it in a window that ANYONE could see instantaneously (if not likely) was a high of sorts. I felt like I had hopped on a hobo train populated by cool subversives. I was in.

A large part of the work I’ve done on the web in the past decade has been to crack the divide between people and the internet. That is, to remove barriers to people feeling comfortable with publishing information to the web. From the first time I took my first real web job, I had it as my mission to democratize web publishing for the people in my charge. And, as time has gone on, I’ve had to build systems and train folks with increasingly easier-to-use tools. What was once Netscape Composer, became Dreamweaver, became Contribute, and is now WordPress. Each tool incrementally removed barriers to folks publishing to the web.

My audience of web publishers has always been the last generation (well, people my age). They are the folks that did not grow up as web natives. The folks who, like me, probably learned touch-typing on an IBM Selectric. One of the users I worked with, upon having her computer upgraded, pleaded with the tech to allow her to keep her monitor because “it has all my files in it.”

I have been repeatedly astounded at the lack of desire on the part of my generation to understand the digital tools they have been given and use them to make life more interesting and engaging. The digital community happened upon us so fast that if you didn’t catch that hobo train in the 1990s, you were likely going to be caught consuming whatever the train delivered, and it was likely what was going to be delivered in a “big box” interface like Facebook or YouTube.

Trouble is, we are the generation that is raising the next, and we know nothing of the world they are occupying, and it makes me sad. Because of our passivity, because we have not done our due diligence to learn about the web, government policies do the work for us. The UK is now proposing filtering the web on the ISP level rather than at the level of the end-user. The filtering is being done in an “opt-out” mode, meaning that your internet WILL get filtered unless you know enough to uncheck a box.

Those of my generation who are afraid of the web, or think it too difficult or irrelevant, are essentially handing over parenting and choice to the state by virtue of their digital illiteracy. Make no mistake, with this type of government mandated filtering, sites like Facebook, Amazon and eBay are far less likely to be filtered then, say, that blog by my writer friend Pete Armetta who is awesome. This increasing corporatization of the web is the big-box experience in the digital space, and it should concern us all.

My colleagues at the University of Mary Washington are doing their best to make sure that the next generation does not fall into this state of digital somnambulism. The Domain of One’s Own project, now extending into their Reclaim Hosting environment, promises to transform how students and faculty use the web. It straddles a very delicate line between barriers to web publishing and passive consuming of canned web tools. It calls people to do MORE than they are comfortable doing, but not more than they can handle if they just get over the fear. It portends to graduate students with a full capacity to occupy the digital world and lay claim to its ongoing creation. And they got serious Chronicle ink.

This is a profound shift from the canned LMS’s, even the good ones, that we have come to expect from higher education. It’s the anti-MOOC in that it does not promise to deliver the complete higher-ed consumer goods in a single interface, but rather opens the door to a new world that people can occupy, build and eventually own. It’s even bringing my reluctant generation along with it in the form of engaged faculty members who are up to the challenge.

For those of us whose passion is to help build an online world that engages the mind rather than the wallet, that is not just one big data-mining scheme, that inspires and delights as people build skills they never thought they’d have, this is a big deal. Fight the Power. This one’s for you, Pete, and thanks for the inspiration.

Genesis Simple Hooks and Iterative Development

I am an unapologetic Genesis developer in WordPress. I say unapologetic because some WordPress developers think that using a framework is a crutch. If you are doing one-offs for freelance clients, this may be true. Developers enjoy the notion of agency over every line of code, and a framework may take them out of their comfort zone. I, on the other hand, am not interested in one-off projects. I like systems — that’s the stuff that makes my heart sing (well, if you don’t count ACTUAL singing and my family).

Over the course of the past three years, most notably in the past 8 months, I continue to discover that Genesis is great for those of us who develop scalable frameworks. In my case, I manage and build several multi-network and multi-site installations. Genesis hooks have provided me with a great framework for quickly developing custom functions. And there are some plugins developed just for Genesis that provide extra functionality that’s come in handy.

But I have shied away from using the Genesis Simple Hooks plugin because I saw that as possibly adding quirkiness that may destabilize the code in my themes. Recently, I’ve slowly discovered how useful Genesis Simple Hooks can be for those of us who develop systems using an iterative development model.

In my current position, I’ve been charged with standing up a production multi-network WordPress environment for the UVA School of Medicine. This environment is being stood up parallel to the current public UVA School of Medicine website. The idea is to build buy-in for WordPress slowly through some quick wins in this new system. The graphic design was taken from a one-off project that was designed for WordPress by a professional web design firm named Convoy (awesome designers, by the way). Having a pro do the design is fine with me — I’ve always been  interested in making things WORK more than in making them PRETTY.

The design is very handsome. It was built as a one-off theme based on the BONES framework, and looks like this:

BIMS Web site

It was elegant, but the codebase as developed did not work in a multisite environment. The beauty of the BONES framework is its responsiveness, its HTML5 compliance, and its use of LESS. So I began to develop using BONES framework for Genesis, but quickly determined that the learning curve and CSS testing for LESS was too difficult for this one-person shop to deliver the new theme and network on time (the professional developers had months and a big budget, I had me and about a month in a brand new job). So, rather than miss the deadline in service to code purity, I opted to return to basic Genesis for a quicker win, and build out from there. Genesis is responsive and extensible, and gives me a whole community to rely on. LESS and SASS may be in my future, but when I have the luxury of time to learn them well. Genesis is flexible enough that LESS or SASS can definitely be added when they are needed for better mobile performance, and better network performance as the system grows.

That decision having been made, I themed my first Genesis-based theme mimicking the design elements from the BONES site, and we rolled out our first site in the network. Since this network is being built iteratively, I knew that the client’s design preferences would have some quirks that may not roll out for everyone. But, I indulged them as it was our first shot. I gave them a font that was really too big so they could read it, and a color scheme that lacked the orange of the original because the client hated orange (ah, design criteria). We also, on a separate note, were developing a more universal navigation and search bar at the top of the screen that the initial site lacked. This was the result:

Undergraduate Education Web Site Design

The theme is fully responsive, like its predecessor, but for me it lacked a lot of the punch of the original design. But, keeping my eyes on the prize, I knew this was a first step. We are now building out another site in this framework, and regular theme-tweaking is the rule. So, the question is: how to tweak without tweaking-off the first person you designed for by hitting them with a change to the stylesheet they had not anticipated?

That’s where Genesis and Genesis Simple Hooks come in. Using the Genesis admin class, I built an “opt-in” for the orange, and it turns out that our current client  LIKES the orange, and others have commented positively on the orange as well. So, here it is with an opted-in orange look (site still in development):

undergraduate education

However, in the current project we are working on, the client had issues with some things that may not translate into network-wide changes. They wanted a custom tab at the top of the page, they wanted different spacing on the navigation bar (that I knew would break other pages). So, rather than say “no,” I discovered Genesis Simple Hooks.

Genesis Simple Hooks allowed me to put in some custom code and stylesheets to please this client, but not affect the network. By the same token, their feedback on the fonts (a legacy from that first project) was appropriate and should be built in to the new framework moving forward. So, rather than tell the first client that they were wrong and silently change their font on them, I installed Google Simple Hooks on their site, and included the stylesheet there for the larger font to make sure they didn’t lose it. Then, I updated the core stylesheet for the theme to reflect the improvement suggested by the second client.

This will involve documenting where the quirks are, but they are minimal. In a previous environment, I’d have to tell clients to live with it, or I’d have to make changes that rippled out to everyone. This is a nice way to get folks to share a framework, but get their needs met. Getting needs met is the ticket to getting folks to want to use your systems and avoid their defecting to outside web design firms that design one-offs because the University’s web systems couldn’t meet their needs.

So, I guess I’m sold on Genesis Simple Hooks, even for us systems-minded types. I highly recommend it for anyone who designs iteratively, and who views their clients not as barriers to design purity, but people with legitimate needs that we are hired to fulfill.

 

The End is Near but Panic Won’t Help

The End is Near

The MOOC conversation is exploding these days. For those who are not immersed in higher education day in and day out, it might seem absurd. The prognostications about the effect of MOOCs on higher education are stunningly diverse, and have the feeling of a mass panic as we rush towards the apocalypse.

MOOCs in and of themselves are not interesting. They are scalable infrastructures to deliver “education” through a web browser. We can debate ad infinitum about whether this is education or serial tutorials, and that debate is for the educators themselves to have. The MOOC conversation extends beyond the walls of education, and is bleeding into legislation these days. That’s where it gets interesting.

We’ve had online education environments for a while now. As a matter of fact, I attended Educause in 2007 where they gave an award to course management systems on their 10th anniversary, lauding how they ushered in a new era for education (which, even all those years ago, seemed quaint). So, it’s not about the technology here, although learning management systems (as they are now called) have grown more sophisticated as the web has improved. It’s about economics, and when resources are scarce (as they are for public higher education these days), people panic and reach for something. And, as it turns out, state legislatures get involved.

MOOCs, it seems, have taken scale and turned the idea of an online course into some sort of hot commodity. Maybe it’s the rock star aspects of schools like Stanford and Harvard, or quirky personalities like Sebastian Thrun (with that cool accent he knows what he’s doing), but the greater public is now taking notice. The recipe for disaster is almost perfect: One part crushing student loans, one part hatred of “big government” leading to decreasing funding for education, one part education administrators number-crunching, bean-counting, and benefactor-begging to stay afloat, and VIOLA! Let’s reach for the life preservers — throw me a MOOC!

So, I give you two states who are reacting to the current, very real crisis in higher education in very different ways. As it turns out, they are geographically about as far away as two states can get, but that just serves to illustrate the metaphor more boldly.

Florida has signed a bill to encourage MOOCs in K-12 and higher education. Essentially, this is non-educators getting into the business of designing delivery of education, which is never very pretty. Faculty are rightfully outraged. To me, this is strangely reminiscent of unfunded NCLB mandates for K-12. The overarching message: “We won’t give you any more resources, but we can ask you to do your job more cheaply, and we read about these MOOC things, which means we know enough to write their use into law.” Done and done.

Then we have the Oregon state legislators who are tackling the resource-panic a little further upstream. Rather than dictating how education is delivered, they are figuring out how to pay for education. Students in Oregon will no longer pay tuition at their eight public institutions. Instead, they will attend for free, and then pay a tax of 5% on their income for 24 years. The particulars of the tax, and the viability of this approach, can be argued for sure. 5% of one’s income is a better deal than an income-neutral student loan mandate with now crushing interest rates. But, details aside, the overarching take-away is that Oregon legislators seem to acknowledge the very real crisis of access to higher education, and understand the government’s role in promoting the general welfare by funding public education through more manageable mechanisms.

Nothing good can come from panic, which is why the current MOOC debate seems premature to an understanding of what this technology can offer, not in terms of dollars and cents, but in terms of its effect on society 20 years out. Fact is, we don’t know. If MOOCs were a drug, the FDA would be calling for lots of testing before declaring it safe for public use. I LOVE higher education technology, and applaud the experimentation with MOOCs as part of this Phase I study for efficacy and safety. But, in my opinion, we can’t rush to over-the-counter distribution until we know more. Meanwhile, we need to not reach for that quick fix. We need, as a society, to step up to the plate and see that our children have access to an education without crushing them.

The end of higher education as we have known it is indeed near. But, MOOCs are a naive and untested panacea. We need to be willing to have harder conversations about what we value and our willingness to pay for it. It’s not all about increasing efficiencies and turning universities into consumer-focused businesses. It’s about the social contract that is being broken and our lack of outrage about that very tragic reality that affects everyone, inside and outside of the ivy walls.